Vintage Chemistry Sets and Their Volatile History

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A vintage chemistry set by A.C Gilbert, c. 1940.

It’s hard to imagine that we used to trust children with open flames and radioactive materials, but it wasn’t so long ago. Vintage chemistry sets, as recently as the 1960s, came with everything youngsters needed to conduct experiments at home. They included fragile glass beakers, alcohol lamps, and elemental chemical samples.

Chemistry kits like these would undoubtedly cause a strong reaction from modern parents and not of the chemical kind. Unpacking the vintage trust we had in kids to be responsible with these toys isn’t a straightforward story to tell. To explain the controversial contents of these kits is much easier. It requires just a brief look back in time.

Teaching Tools, Tricks, or Toys?

The first chemistry kits were chemical chests—mobile science labs made by British chemists in the 1700s. First, chemists would stock sturdy wooden crates with carefully labeled test tubes and tools. Then, they added straps and buckles to take their show on the road and share their latest discoveries with an audience.

Chemists and their chests would tour across England to do demonstrations. These demos were meant to teach medical professionals chemistry’s basic (and acidic) concepts. The hope was that the doctors and pharmacists who attended would use what they learned in their work. Chemistry was a newer field, so audiences were often amazed and couldn’t help but share what they saw.

So seemingly magical was the study of chemistry at the time that interest in it spread far and wide. Early 1900s America saw the introduction of the first home chemistry kits. They were aimed not at chemists or professionals but the general public.

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This is an example of a “chemical magic kit,” c. 1930, made by J. Pressman.

Early children’s chemistry sets were sold as “chemical magic kits.” They taught kids how to do “tricks” to impress their family and friends. Such kits had experiments that changed colors or caused smoke and minor explosions. These sets rose to popularity in the 1940s and 50s.

As WWII brought advances in science to the home front, magic became less of a selling point. Instead, chemistry kits began to sell to parents who hoped to raise little scientists, not just pranksters. These kits were still made to be fun, of course, but they also took their young users more seriously, explaining the reactions that took place and why.

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This insert was included with ChemCraft kits of the 1950s, encouraging kids to write to the company for more supplies to keep doing experiments.

Putting a Cork in At-Home Chemistry

Scientific progress in the 1960s and 70s (perhaps made by some of the same little chemists mentioned earlier) began to change things. Research would show that many chemicals common to American life at the time were not as safe as previously thought.

Chemistry sets drew scrutiny with these new findings in mind. Parents began to fear that their children would ingest toxic ingredients by accident. Or worse, that they would make something harmful through experimentation on purpose.

John Tyler, retired chemistry teacher and author of The Chemcraft Story: The Legacy of Harold Porter, laments that “There was nothing dangerous about the chemicals themselves, it’s how they were used—put anything into a test-tube, stick a cork stopper on top, apply heat et voilà you’ve got a potential lawsuit.”

The nuclear-themed lab kits of the 1950s (like the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, pictured below) are noteworthy for this. Inspired by America’s foray into nuclear power, these kits entrusted kids with uranium and other radioactive mineral samples to experiment with from the comforts of home.

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This is the fabled Atomic Energy Lab by A.C. Gilbert c.1950, described above.

The Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960 and the Toy Safety Act of 1969 brought about significant changes to toys in the US. These laws regulated or banned many common components of chemistry sets. Targeted in particular were substances capable of being used in explosives, drugs, or poisons. As a result, many toys of this era were discontinued, recalled, or thrown out by concerned parents.

In the wake of those genuine safety issues came generational changes. Parents became uncomfortable trusting their children with glass and metal toys. If something glass broke or metal was misused, kids could get hurt. So plastic toys rose in popularity and took their place. They were cheaper, easier to make, and safer to play with unsupervised.

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This Chemlab set from the 1980s shows how chemistry kits would come to look today- all plastic and with only “environmentally safe” chemicals included.

Brewing Up a Hobby: Collecting Vintage Chemistry Sets

Finding vintage chemistry sets with all the bells and whistles today isn’t easy. The oldest ones are often privately held or shown in museums. As a collector, you’ll have more luck looking for individual pieces– think loose vials of chemicals or labware. You could use parts to cobble together your own set from scratch or fill out missing details in an incomplete one.

While much more widely mass-produced, WWII-era home chemistry sets have become less common over the years. You’ll have to be willing to hunt a bit, especially if you’re picky about brand, condition, or completeness. Few vintage chemistry sets survive in such great shape as the one pictured below.

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An absolute gem—a Chemcraft Senior Lab, aimed at teenagers and sold widely in the 40s and 50s. This model has all its original pieces and manuals intact.

Children’s chemistry kits were frequently well-loved by their previous owners. They often have most of their parts but have missing chemicals or household utensils subbed in for original tools. Those that make it to the present day with their original components intact still often show some wear. Some collectors feel that adds to the charm, however.

Collectors of all kinds find themselves drawn to vintage chemistry sets, perhaps because of their volatile history. Some see them as aesthetic relics of a more reckless time. A time of which we’re glad we know better now. Still, other collectors look at them with nostalgia for a childhood that encouraged risk and reward. They lament the overprotective nature of toys today. I think it’s still important for kids to “take chances, make mistakes and get messy,” to quote Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus, but maybe with less Strontium-90 involved today.

Rory Tessmer is an eBayer and freelancer from southeastern Wisconsin with over a decade of specialty retail and resale experience under their belt. Rory has had the pleasure of seeing (and sometimes even playing with) hundreds of unusual collectibles over the years, from tesla coils to military mule-branding kits. In their spare time, they enjoy cooking, gaming, and noodling around with their synthesizer.

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